Technology and Human Responsibility
Issue #164 July 5, 2005
A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On the Web: http://netfuture.org
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Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
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Can We Learn to Think Like a Plant? (Stephen L. Talbott)
Toward a New, Qualitative Science (Part 2)
About this newsletter
Issue #13 of The Nature Institute's hardcopy publication, In Context,
is now available. Its feature articles, posted online, include "From
Two Cultures to One: On the Relation Between Science and Art", which
I co-wrote with Vladislav Rozentuller. This essay relates closely to
the pieces I have been presenting in NetFuture on qualitative science,
and tries to show how human experience provides a language of revelation
for the physical world. The latest In Context also contains an
assessment by neurologist Siegward Elsas of the relation between brain
activity and thinking. You will find both articles at
One other thing. Some of you may be interested in The Nature Institute's
one-week intensive summer course, "Reading the Gestures of Life", July 10
- 16. This is an introduction to the methods of Goethean, or qualitative,
science, led by my biologist-colleague, Craig Holdrege. For details, go
to http://natureinstitute.org/ni/educ/summer. If you want to participate,
we'll need to hear from you by Friday.
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CAN WE LEARN TO THINK LIKE A PLANT?
Toward a New, Qualitative Science (Part 2)
Stephen L. Talbott
Perhaps never in the history of the world has so vast a project yielded
such overwhelming benefits at such a terrible cost. The technological
products of our massively institutionalized science are such visible and
effective instruments of power that few would question the essential
rightness of this science as an inquiry into the nature of the world. And
yet, thanks to this same science we find ourselves increasingly alienated
from the world and bereft of any sense of human understanding. What
understanding we are offered derives primarily from instruments and, as
data, passes straight from the instruments to computational machines
fitter than we to cope with it.
The technological benefits of this science hardly need defending. On the
other hand, we find no clarity, no consensus, and in fact precious
little discussion about what it might mean to understand the world. The
crucial notion of scientific or causal explanation is almost nothing but
confusion. My aim in this and subsequent essays will be to clarify some
of this confusion as best I can.
Where Does Unity Reveal Itself?
We must start somewhere, so consider the field buttercup (Ranunculus
acris), whose leaves are shown below in Figure 1. Here I will draw
heavily upon a discussion offered by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady
(1987). Brady was a leading expositer of what is often called "Goethean
science" (and what I prefer to call "qualitative science").
What you see, from lower left, clockwise around the circle to lower right,
is a sequence of leaves taken from a single buttercup plant. The leaf at
lower left appeared first and lowest on the stem, with the others
appearing successively higher in the order shown.
Give yourself time to experience the series repeatedly, moving from one
leaf to the next, both forward and backward. You should do this until you
can, in imagination, provide a smooth series of transitional forms between
any two leaves. Through this process you cannot help experiencing the
entire series as a unity.
But here already we are in trouble if we remain within the frame of
conventional science. The term "unity" suggests some sort of reality
spanning the gaps between material leaves, or hovering over them so as to
constitute the many as one. But what could this reality consist of?
Whatever it consists of, we can say this: the unity that binds material
things or phenomena together cannot itself be just another material thing
Unity as a Movement
But perhaps, keeping your eyes fixed on the material leaves, you will say
that the unity consists of what the leaves all have in common -- something
we can abstract from the series. Just about the only candidate for this
commonality, however, is a three-part (trifoliate) schema, and such a
schema is compatible with an unlimited variety of radically different leaf
sequences, none of which need be very much like the buttercup. So by
itself the schema hardly gives us a key to the distinctive unity we so
clearly recognize in this particular species. Nor (which is the same
thing) does it elucidate the character of the transformation from one leaf
to the next.
None of this is any surprise. Clearly, what the leaves have in common
cannot by itself enable us to understand the movement from one leaf to a
different leaf. Differences are not a matter of commonality.
Brady suggests that the starting point for understanding must be the
progression itself, not the fixed forms of the individual leaves. In an
initial (and necessarily unsatisfactory) attempt to describe the
progression of the buttercup series in words, we might say that its first
half shows a successive enlargement, or expansion, of the leaf and an
elongation of the separate parts as the leaf becomes more intricately
articulated. In the second half of the series we see a general
contraction along with an ever more severe, and at the same time more
simplified, articulation. But we can already glimpse something of this
later movement in the first half of the series, before it overwhelms the
expansive tendency. And the different aspects we have tried to describe
are in fact caught up within a single, complex-but-seamless gesture that
we can capture only imaginally.
But in representing such a progression imaginally, are we taking hold of a
reality we can work with in any practical way?
Suppose we had viewed the sequence with one of the leaves missing, and
then were given the leaf and told to place it wherever we thought it
belonged. Brady describes the process this way:
The movement we are thinking would, if entirely phenomenal, be entirely
continuous, leaving no gaps. Thus as gaps narrow, the impression of
movement is strengthened, and the technique by which a new form can be
judged consists in placing that form within one of the gaps or at
either end of the series and observing the result. When the movement
is strengthened or made smoother the new form may be left in place.
But if the impression of movement is weakened or interrupted, the new
form must be rejected. Thus the context of movement is itself a
criterion by which we accept or reject new forms.
Read that last sentence again; it is central. The unifying element we
were looking for is nothing other than the movement by which membership in
the series can be determined. This is the element that all the
individual leaves participate in. It is not so much a given thing
they have in common as something they all do, each one entering
into the same, overall gesture in its own place and distinctive way.
A willingness to deal with change or movement as such -- to deal with
movement in its own terms -- is an essential feature of any qualitative
science. And it requires a new kind of thinking. Brady remarks that "the
impression of 'gradual modification' cannot depend any more on what each
form has in common with its neighbors than upon what it does not share
with them. Change demands difference, and continuous change, continuous
difference". That is, we can "see" the movement from one form to the
next only by virtue of a characteristic "distribution of sameness and
difference between them". This dynamic context alone is what brings
out the lawful relation between forms.
To make the matter more vivid, consider the two leaves shown below.
| || |
| || Figure 1.
Sequence of buttercup leaves. |
| || |
Figure 2. Two buttercup
If you had seen only these at the beginning, you might well have assumed
they came from entirely different plants. But after you have worked
through the sequence, both forward and backward, bringing it into
continuous movement in your imagination, you can see these two leaves
within the context of that movement, and they will no longer seem unlike.
They will, as Brady remarks, "bear a distinct resemblance to each other,
and bear it so strongly ... that the impression arises that they are
somehow the same form. Here is the intuited 'single form' of the
series, but it cannot be equated with anything static".
The Primacy of Movement
We need to press our consideration of the buttercup just a little further.
As we have seen, no individual form in the leaf series can give us the
difference between forms or the character of the overall transformation.
Brady comments that "The movement is not itself a product of the forms
from which it is detected, but rather [it is] the unity of those forms,
from which unity any form belonging to the series can be generated.
Individual forms are in this sense 'governed' by the movement of the
series in which they are found".
So there are two, very different ways we can think of a leaf in the
series. One is as a given "thing" -- a fixed form considered as an
isolated, static, and material end-product. Seen in this conventional
light, the leaf cannot serve as a revelation of the movement or unity we
have recognized. The isolated leaf, so far as its given form is
concerned, could just as well be part of a different sequence, entirely
unlike the buttercup.
In other words, there is no necessity, implicit in a static end-product,
for a generative movement of a particular sort. The only necessity we
find in our leaf sequence is an expression of the movement itself, which
is capable of generating particular forms out of its own nature. When we
think of the leaf in this second way -- in the context of a transformative
movement with a power to generate particular forms of a particular
imaginal character -- then we no longer have the leaf as a mere thing.
The image of the single leaf, Brady writes, "becomes transparent to the
whole 'gesture' -- which it now seems to express". As we saw when we
looked at just two leaves isolated from the sequence, they can appear
either unrelated or as expressions of a unity, depending on whether we see
them as mere objects or as momentarily frozen gestures of a continuous
movement. In the latter case,
The individual leaf now appears to be "coming from" something as well
as "passing to" something, and by so doing represents to our
mind, more than itself -- it can no longer be separated from its before
and after. Indeed, its only distinction from these moments lies in the
conditions of arrest -- that is, we see it "caught in the act" of
becoming something else .... Each visible form now emerges as
partial, and becomes a disclosure of another sort of form.
Or, as he also puts it, each leaf "is becoming other in order to remain
itself". It has to be becoming other; given that it is in fact a
manifestation of a movement, it can retain its identity only so far as it
is itself seen to be in movement. Every leaf is now representative of all
the others in the series because each is born of the same movement. This
is how the two forms of Figure 2 manage to look alike.
This means that the difference between two leaf-forms is required if we
are to see the kind of unity at issue here. If in Figure 2 we had two
identical forms, we would be able to say nothing about any unity or
generative movement. Mere sameness is not unity, and it cannot give us
movement. This is why a science based on abstraction, whereby we abstract
from things their sameness -- what they have in common -- cannot deal with
the various sorts of dynamic unity we find in the world's phenomena.
Finally, pattern and Gestalt have become popular terms today in some
branches of science, but we need to distinguish these terms, as they
are general employed, from the "movement" or "gesture" we have been
considering here. Goethe summarizes the matter this way:
The German has the word Gestalt for the complex of existence of an
actual being. He abstracts, with this expression, from the moving, and
assumes a congruous whole to be determined, completed, and fixed in its
But if we consider Gestalts generally, especially organic ones, we
find that independence, rest, or termination nowhere appear, but
everything fluctuates rather in continuous motion. Our speech is
therefore accustomed to use the word Bildung pertaining to both what
has been brought forth and the process of bringing-forth.
If we would introduce a morphology, we ought not to speak of the
Gestalt, or if we do use the word, should think thereby only of an
abstraction -- a notion of something held fast in experience but for an
instant. (Quoted in Brady 1987, p. 274)
What has been formed is immediately transformed again, and if we would
succeed, to some degree, to a living view of Nature, we must attempt to
remain as active and as plastic as the example she sets for us.
The Explanatory Power of the Whole
All this lands us in territory both familiar and strange to science.
Everyone, with some inner, imaginative work, can recognize the coherent
movement, or shaping potential, that engenders and unifies the leaf
sequence. This is hardly esoteric stuff. But what sort of reality can
be claimed for a movement or shaping potential we can recognize only
between material leaf forms, and what do we mean when we say the
movement governs the individual forms? Can we say in any legitimate
sense that the movement accounts for or explains the forms -- or that it
brings us scientific understanding of the buttercup?
To say any of this is to appeal to principles of understanding and
explanation that stand behind or precede the phenomenal appearances they
apply to. Brady is indeed invoking such principles when he speaks of "a
law by which the plant produces its multiplicity of forms", and also of a
"whole which designs its own parts". Contrary to our analytic habits, he
says, we must learn to think from the whole to the parts. However, so far
as we remain stuck in those usual habits, we can scarcely imagine the kind
of immaterial unity at issue, and therefore we may object to the
"obscurity" of all references to it.
The objection rings hollow. There is nothing particularly obscure about
the structure of our cognitive activity in grasping the unity of the
buttercup, as outlined above. We "see" this unity beyond any doubting,
and it is dangerous to the health of science when we ignore what is right
in front of us. Moreover, we have already noted (Talbott 2005) that the
recognition of such unity is a routine, if underappreciated, experience of
the scientist. For example, every biologist and every naturalist relies
upon this irreducibly qualitative experience when identifying and
Such recognition of unities that cannot be equated with any particular
collection of physical things must be acknowledged by anyone who is not
already shut off from the testimony of his own senses. A qualitative
science does not posit some mystical and unknown source of insight. It
simply refuses to ignore the routine powers of cognition prerequisite to
all scientific analysis. After all, we cannot meaningfully analyze and
divide unless we are first given a significant unity to analyze. If there
is obscurantism here, it lies in the refusal to take a critical,
investigative stance toward the starting place for all our scientific
work. It lies in the willingness to build this work upon a kind of
If we prefer to fill in this blank, we need to reckon with, among other
things, the explanatory power of the dynamic unity observed in the leaf
series. In a sense, the matter is so simple as to preclude argument. We
see an overall gesture in the temporal unfolding of leaves on a plant.
This gesture cannot be equated to any tangible object, and it clearly
gives us a much fuller picture of the reality of the plant than any
collection of tangible objects alone could possibly give us. The gesture
expresses something of the character and unity of the plant that we can
grasp no other way. It gives us the life and the becoming of the plant
rather than isolated, frozen snapshots taken from that life. Do we really
need to debate which approach captures more of the world's reality -- the
snapshot or the underlying gesture that engenders and lives in all such
The problem is that we have carried over from the nineteenth century an
outmoded desire for explanation in terms of the impact of particle upon
particle, gear upon gear, object upon object. More recently, as we saw in
"The Vanishing World-Machine" (Talbott 2003), explanation has shifted
toward the formalisms of logic, rule, equation, and algorithm. These two
modes of explanation have tended to combine, so that we feel most securely
possessed of understanding when we can picture machine-like objects whose
"gears" and "levers" seem to be little more than condensations of logic --
when, in other words, we can picture the world in the way we picture a
By comparison, the unity we observe in the leaves of the buttercup may
suffer from all the vagueness and insubstantiality we associate with
consciousness. It seems to be a a mere image held in our minds. It is
more pictorial and imaginative than logical and computational. It does
not readily lend itself to the action of gears or levers or transistors.
To equate it with any particular physical object is, in fact, to lose it.
Can such a pictorial idea manifesting in our consciousness contribute to a
genuine understanding of the world?
But, crucially, the idea does not manifest only in our consciousness.
After all, we recognized it in a series of leaves. It is the kind of idea
botanists routinely encounter in the phenomena they deal with, and is
required in order to make these phenomena intelligible. Where is the idea
if not in the phenomena that demand it from any understanding mind?
Many scientists, of course, will stumble over the notion that what occurs
to us as imaginative idea may occur in the world as well, where it acts as
a kind of shaping power. "How", they will ask, "does a mere idea gain
power to mold the physical world?"
Actually, our science of laws and causes points us toward nothing but such
shaping power. I certainly do not wish to equate the lawfulness of
gravity with the lawfulness of leaf transformation; they are very
different sorts of lawfulness. But if the governing unity of the leaf
series is not a physical thing, neither are the equations we identify with
the law of gravity. The principles of order in both cases are neither
more nor less than articulations of our conscious activity.
But the whole point of articulating these principles in our minds is to
elucidate the phenomena we encounter. These principles either do or do
not make the phenomena intelligible, and if they do, then they undeniably
belong to the phenomena. And they cannot belong to the phenomena while
residing solely in our heads.
Yes, the notion that imaginative contents have a power to shape the world
is alien to modern sensibilities. But to find ourselves continually
forced to draw, not only upon mathematics, but also upon dynamic images
in our attempt to understand the world, and then to deny that, not only a
mathematical shaping power, but also an imaginal shaping power is what we
see at work in the world -- this requires a human being who is at war with
himself. The only thing I know of that could drive one into this
self-contradiction is the materialist's urgent need to avoid recognizing
anything of an inner, living character in the objective world around us.
But you cannot really even have gravity except as (among other things) an
imaginal power. It manifests itself in the characteristic forms of
physical movement -- as when you throw a ball -- but makes use of no gears
or transistors in playing its role. If you stop and think about it, you
will find you have no more reason to ascribe explanatory power to the
physicist's formulation of the gravitational law than to the governing
gesture of the buttercup. This remains true despite the drastically
different kinds of form evident in the two cases.
Intelligibility Comes from Within
A great deal needs to be said to enflesh these brief suggestions. For the
moment I will conclude my comments with the barest sketch of some of the
territory we will need to survey more fully, especially when we come to
the epistemological underpinnings of a qualitative science.
What conventional science has done with the law of gravity is to make
it so thin and abstract, so bloodless, so empty of content, that we can
easily forget its true nature. But, however much we have emptied them of
all but quantitative content, our gravitational equations remain nothing
if not expressions of our mentality. Numbers and formal relations
are not physical things. Ironically, the materialist who more and
more sees the world in terms of equation, rule, and algorithm -- and
who, like the philosopher Daniel Dennett, can say, for example, that
evolution just is an algorithm -- has become a kind of airy idealist.
His "physical" world is almost nothing but mentality -- and mentality of
the most insubstantial sort.
But whether you consider this science of abstraction to be materialism or
idealism, it remains largely vacuous for the simple reason that high
abstractions have almost no content. I said a moment ago that we have no
more reason to ascribe explanatory power to the usual formulation of the
law of gravity than to the governing gesture of the buttercup. Actually,
we have less reason to consider the gravitational law, in its usual
formulation, explanatory. The problem is that we have no meaningful law
of gravity so long as we take Newton's (or any later) equation in its
strictly abstract and quantitative aspect. We have to have qualitative
concepts of mass and force as well. Without these concepts, we might see
objects moving along certain mathematically describable trajectories, but
we would have no sense at all that each object was attracting or pulling
Where do we get a concept of force? You will struggle in vain to find any
origin for it other than in your own inner experience -- for example, the
experience of exerting your will to move your muscles, and the experience
of being drawn or compelled by the force of someone's personality. In
such experience we find the prerequisites for our scientific thoughts
about force even if we tend to ignore the experience while working with
our equations. If Eddington had reckoned with this source of our
scientific insight and had been able to integrate it into his science, he
would not have had to say, as we heard in "Do Physical Laws Make Things
Happen?" (Talbott 2004):
[Our knowledge of physics] is only an empty shell -- a form of symbols.
It is knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All
through the physical world runs that unknown content.... (1920, p.
The only way to gain the unknown content is to cease neglecting the only
content we are given, which is the inner content of our own experience.
This experience is the primal source of any science, any knowledge of the
world, we could possibly have. Eddington could find only empty structure
because his science refused to acknowledge its reliance upon human
experience or to recognize the human being as by far the most perfect
"instrument" for perceiving the world -- the only one of our instruments
capable of supplying the content from which all data is abstracted.
Returning the data to its original, qualitative context is, obviously
enough, the only way it can become meaningful. And wrenching the data
away from its context is, obviously enough, a formula for denaturing the
world, and for reconstructing it in the image of a badly compromised human
instrument -- compromised because abandoned from the neck down, leaving
only our ability to emulate a computer.
Our choice, then, is not between remaining respectable, hard-headed
materialists or else projecting fanciful, immaterial ideas upon the
physical world. Rather, it is between projecting a drastically
inadequate, anemic, abstract mentality upon the world (while forgetting
that this is nevertheless a content of our own consciousness), or else
discovering in ourselves the imaginative, muscular, aesthetically felt
contents that can render the world more fully intelligible.
Why should we employ less than our full range of our conscious awarenesses
when we try consciously to understand the world? Where does the world
impose upon us the rule, "ignore everything but your capacity for
measurement when you contemplate nature"? How can we forget that
measurements mean nothing except so far as we know what we are measuring?
And there is no what given except the quality. (Go ahead: try to
describe any what you wish without resorting to qualities.)
We have seen with the buttercup a little bit of what it means to apprehend
the qualities of things. A certain quality of the buttercup (we could
also say: a certain meaning of the buttercup) is expressed in the
gesturing of its leaves. To capture this gesturing we had to do inner
work, bringing the gesture to life within ourselves. Our imagination had
to be brought willfully into movement.
This effort of will, as a conscious work, is what we usually lack when
thinking much too easily about gravity -- that is, when manipulating
well-defined equations while forgetting that these equations are about a
power of movement. We can scarcely hope to understand this without our
own experience of the power of movement. The problem with science today
is that it stops short of knowing the physical world -- as opposed to the
self-contained domain of logic and mathematics -- because it ignores the
many-faceted inner realm where we experience the world as much more than
measure and quantity.
Ideas or laws in the qualitative, imaginal sense I have been speaking of
are nothing other than the phenomena themselves in their transparency to
understanding, in their expressiveness, in their different ways of being.
Expressing this or that character is what physical phenomena do. It is
what gives them content. It is the life by which they exist. Phenomena
would be nothing to us if they were not intelligible expressions. In some
ways the last few hundred years of science have amounted to the insane
project of mapping reality according to a schema of intelligibility while
denying intelligibility to reality.
Within human consciousness we discover a language for understanding the
world (Rozentuller and Talbott 2005). If this were not so, we could only
stare blankly at our surroundings. What scientists need to realize is
that our conscious (and unconscious) interior is vastly richer than the
contentless abstractions playing over the convoluted surface of our
brains. We are creatures of imagination, of heart-felt feeling, and of
will raying out through our muscles and bones. And to the degree we must
call on the full powers of this inner language in order to comprehend,
for example, the leaves successively gestured forth along the stem of a
buttercup -- to the degree this language makes the world intelligible --
we must acknowledge that the language speaks truly. That is, it reveals
the world, which is to say that what speaks in us speaks also in the
Or, as the ancients might have put it: the same logos shines through both
the world and the human being. How could it be otherwise?
Much more remains to be said.
Brady, Ronald H. (1987). "Form and Cause in Goethe's Morphology", in
Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by Frederick Amrine,
Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, vol. 97 of Boston Studies in the
Philosophy of Science, edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky.
Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., pp. 257-300.
Eddington, Sir Arthur (1920). Space, Time, and Gravitation. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Rozentuller, Vladislav and Stephen L. Talbott (2005). "From Two Cultures to
One: On the Relation Between Science and Art", In Context #13. Available
Talbott, Stephen L. (2005). "Recognizing Reality", available at
http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch08.htm. Originally published
in NetFuture #162 (April 5, 2005).
Talbott, Stephen L. (2004). "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?", available
at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch03.htm. Originally published in
NetFuture #155 (March 16, 2004).
Talbott, Stephen L. (2003). "The Vanishing World-Machine", available at
http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch01.htm. Originally published in
NetFuture #151 (October 30, 2003).
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